Dave Schools: Not Necessarily Projecting
Taking full advantage of Widespread Panic 2004 hiatus, bassist Dave Schools is performing in at least three other bands. Right now Stockholm Syndrome, is at the fore, as the band’s debut, Holy Happy Hour, is due June 29 on Terminus Records. Formed with Jerry Joseph, the duo developed a quick songwriting relationship while drawing in a versatile bunch of players, including Eric McFadden (P-Funk All Stars), Danny Dziuk (who worked with Joseph) and Wally Ingram (Jackson Browne, Sheryl Crow). With a band name that alludes to the psychological phenomenon of a hostage who eventually bonds with his kidnappers, an instrumental foundation that grooves in multiple ways and lyrics that inspire the thought process, Holy Happy Hour gives listeners something to digest upon each play. Meanwhile Schools has been performing with J Mascis and Fog, and is prepping a new release from Slang. Just don't call any of these endeavors projects (even if he slips and does so).
Schools discusses each of these, his love of indie rock, touring Europe versus the U.S., political activism and what's making jambands suddenly take time off the road.
John Patrick Gatta: I was listening to the album again right before you called. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it grabs you in a certain sort of way; one of those things where you just groove to it and you catch something each time you’re listening to it. Am I on the right path?
Dave Schools: Yeah you are. As the producer of the record, there was always a lot of things to be considered. Usually, the kind of projects I produce, there's just barely enough budget to get the songs recorded and arranged. This was certainly no exception, but with the caliber of talent we had, not only in so much as the musicians, but also with Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Big Star, ZZ Top) engineering the recordings and [longtime WSP producer] John Keane mixing them. There was really a great opportunity to give it a little more attention as far as the sound landscape, production wise.
Jerry and I wrote the majority of those songs pretty quickly. We were sort of heading in a particular direction and we didn't pull any punches with the lyrics. So we felt that if there was time and if it worked out that way that it would be really good to create crib for the words through the music for each song. It's funny because there's this axiom in recording that we'll get it right if it takes every penny you've got, which is like remodeling a room in your house. It's going to cost twice as much and take three times as long as you thought. I think that anyone can get in trouble. These bands that take 18 months to make records, you're never going to be satisfied. It's helpful to have some pressures. We had a lot. We, basically, had 10 days in the studio to record 12 songs with five guys who've never really played together more than just rehearsing the songs a few times with working out the arrangements.
JPG: With that tight timetable in mind, then why would you go to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas rather than just recording near home with John Keane who you’ve worked with before?
DS: The main purpose of the whole project was to try out the idea that Jerry and I had, and having some fun and getting the chance to play with some people we really enjoy musically. And also to be able to go to a historic studio and work with one of the architects of rock and roll, Terry Manning. This guy, he's been in the business for 40 years. Also, it doesn't exactly hurt to go to the Bahamas in January. (laughs) Not that I ever saw the beach or dipped my toes in the water. Other guys had fun.
Really, I guess in my longwinded fashion, I'm really glad that you picked up on that because a lot of care really was taken throughout the recording and the mixing as far as layering and utilizing the talents of these musicians to create atmospheres where there things were sort of buried where you can pick up up on in later listenings.
JPG: Just to clarify on something you mentioned earlier, you mentioned about the main purpose, the idea behind Holy Happy Hour — creating a crib for the lyrics and also to put together a layered feeling for additional listenings…
DS: Yeah, when you're working with a dream project, and when you're two friends who've known each other for a long time like Jerry and I have, there's a lot of things to be considered. It's like what are some of our favorite records? It went so far as to go well, Exile on Main Street where the band sounded like they just threw their gear up in the living room and recorded a record.’ Then you’ve got a Peter Gabriel record like Us or So where it's so much time and effort and thought put into the making of this record. The two records almost stand polar opposites. So, we're like, These are two of our favorite records. Let's make one that sounds like those.' Great. How am I going to wrangle that? In ten days no less. Not to compare this record to either of those, but those are two approaches to recording and so we just had all these big dreams.
We were lucky that they worked out because you'll see Jerry or myself both say that this is one of the things that's brought up in every interview that this thing planned out great on paper but just like anything that planned out great on paper, it could have been a total disaster. So far it hasn't been. Everything has really worked out from having the talent we wanted to them actually doing their homework and learning the songs and injecting their individuality into the songs without ceasing to be a team player, and then liking the music enough to go out on the road for next to nothing compared to what they're used to and learned to be a band at tiny little night clubs across Europe. When we get back to the States this summer, we will have something pretty impressive to bring to the board.
JPG: You’ve touched on a handful of things I want to bring up and I guess first let’s head to Europe. You and Jerry did an acoustic tour of Europe before going into the studio. Then you toured with the band version of Stockholm Syndrome in Europe earlier this year. Was it a matter that if things didn’t work out you’d rather do it across the sea than in front of people in the United States?
DS: Well I think there's some validity to what you just said, but that wasn't really at the forefront. The forefront was that Jerry and I enjoy traveling together and we enjoy wandering around cities that we are unfamiliar with that have a particularly cultural thing.
The other main point is that Jerry tends to get a lot of respect in Europe as do a lot of songwriters. He's been over there quite frequently by himself as an acoustic act or with the Jackmormons. European audiences although much smaller, really listen. You put me into the equation and automatically you're sort of inviting the party scene as it were into the fold. We encountered that to a decent degree last year when Jerry and I went. People screaming the words to "Climb to Safety" the way John Bell sings it so loud that we couldn't hear ourselves singing the way we were doing it that night over top of em. So, it was a good idea to try it out over there where there's a lot of built-in listening. European audiences, they're just a little different that way. And they're certainly not turned on to Widespread Panic or this whole jamband scene as we are in the States. We thought that if we went over there to rehearse, we could work out the kinks in a pretty low impact environment. And believe me, there's a lot of things to work out when you're dealing with these really talented players.
JPG: Now when you did the acoustic tour with Jerry, were you doing any numbers that came to be on the Stockholm Syndrome album or were you just doing like covers…?
DS: No, we were doing all of Jerry's material. We did a lot of it since it was just him and I. It was pretty easy to learn. We did do the song "Tight." We may have done "Empire One" I can't really remember. Jerry's really prolific. He and I managed to write six of the songs in like three days in Athens. The songs that are just credited to Jerry, he wrote generally in the time between the European duo tour and November of last year, which includes "Bouncing Very Well" and "Empire One." The point of that duo tour was to see if we could collaborate songwriting-wise, cause I'm used to a very different style of collaboration with Widespread Panic. The way we write songs is obviously going to be very different from the way Jerry would write songs by himself.
JPG: I read in the press kit how you have two disparate sensibilities yet things came together. Can you give me an example of a song or explain how the two of you meshed creatively?
DS: The couple songs we wrote on that first trip, we wrote em in Zurich on a day off, aren't on the record. One of em has been added to the rotation live. We come up with some chord changes or riffs and agree on em and start playing em around. Jerry would find a melody line and words would mold themselves around that melody line. It was like watching alchemy take place because verse after verse would just pour out of him once he got his melody together and his subject matter. It's pretty good when you're editing verses out of a song because there's too much. I think that most people get themselves in the position of trying to come up with that third verse or something. Whereas Jerry it's sort of, like a speeding fountain pen, which is a good thing.
That's a good thing, so when we convened here in Athens, around Thanksgiving last fall, we'd sit around and talk and sort of look through his notebooks and Jerry tends to write from ideas or titles. He'll come up with a title for a song, "American Fork" is a great example because it's a small town in Utah called American Fork. That just sort of suggests some concepts, metaphors and things. So we sort of ran with that.
"Sack Full of Hearts" he just read an article about these youthful mercenaries in Africa that are 8, 9, 10 years old. They have no parents. They sleep on floors and they kill people in these tribal wars. Their 14 or 15 year old commander had a sack full of human hearts that were soaked in gin and before they'd go off to battle he's feed each one of these kids a piece of a heart. Supposed to give them strength. Sap the strength of their enemies. It's just like what in the? There's a lot of things you can run with from that concept. Killer kids without parents, their lives, will they ever be normal? And so these concepts are sort of there.
Then it's like, let's write a reggae song. Let's see if we can come up with some words for "sack full of hearts." Another interesting example of how we did it is the song "One in My Hand," which was the old classic trick of let's work out some chord changes on instruments we don't play normally. Which put me on the keyboard and Jerry on the bass. We sort of came up with interesting cinematic chord progressions for that. But they were so simple but then mostly cut. It was just me and him and maybe some background vocals added over it and then mixed down and sent to the other guys. So, Danny and Wally and Eric are truly responsible for a lot of the feel of the song. It was definitely an interesting experiment sort of trying a lot of different methodologies.
Like I said, the whole point was to have fun, put together this dream team band. Anything went and it was this sort of freedom, what have we got to lose? Most bands don't have that luxury.
JPG: Just to back up for a second, was this something when you were doing the last days with Widespread Panic before the hiatus that you were thinking, okay, I’m going to get together with Jerry and do this and that’ or were you just sitting at home and the one day, and like I don’t want to sit at home for all of 2004. I got to do something.’ And you know you called him up or he called you up or something like that.
DS: No it was really, a long term thing. It sort of came about really, I'd say, I want to say around 2000, well probably, when I was producing the Conscious Contact record in the summer and fall of 2001. This is kind of cool you know. Wouldn't it be cool to maybe take this another step further try it out with some different, a larger band, different players, do something different. I know from past experience that if I was to attempt to sit around Athens for a year, I'd go insane. Not that I don't love it here, but, I have to have music going on and I got four projects going on this year.
Actually, I hate the word project. We decided in the Stockholm Syndrome that we'd put a moratorium on the word project. But I have three-piece power pop combo called Acetate here in town that sort of sounds like ZZ Top ran into Cheap Trick's tour van. There's the Slang stuff I do with Layng Martine. There's another record of that coming out in August. This tour with J Mascis and The Fog, I just got off of…
JPG: Oh, okay, wow. I knew about Slang but I forgot about Acetate and you playing with J.
DS: I need to keep busy. Jerry does too. The idea of just doing something different and keeping busy, we had a plan. I spent the better portion of after the Panic tour was over, in November, making sure that these musicians were going to be able to do the thing and solidifying the studio time. All the producerly stuff that people don't think about, the budget and the timing, you know all that stuff
JPG: That’s real interesting being a J Mascis fan, I’m kind of surprised that you can hear me okay, right now.
DS: (laughs) They call it the three day ring. It's not so bad onstage. If you're out in the house, in front of J's amp.
JPG: I’ve had friends come from large theatres and they’re like in the lobby, I can’t take it anymore.’ Earplugs, earplugs see?
DS: Definitely. Not just for breakfast anymore.
JPG: How was it working with someone like J because it seems to me he’s coming from a totally if you will, totally different world.
DS: I don't know how different it really is, I thought about this a lot. First of all J's one of my big heroes. I've always loved all kinds of music. I was a huge fan of Dinosaur jr. I loved all the SST stuff in the mid 890's. Black Flag, and the Meat Puppets, Firehose and Minutemen, all the SST stuff, so, for me it already made sense. Maybe some of those things I hadn't thought about was J loves to play really long meandering guitar solos. There was some comment he made on one of the jambands type web pages,, the guy had asked J, why Dave Schools? He was like, Well we both like to noodle around a lot. It just happens to be at high volume.'
JPG: That’s funny.
DS: We played a lot, He called me and he's like what should we do on the tour?' I said, well you know since we're basically checking each other out musically to see if we want to collaborate which is a word that is not necessarily in J's dictionary he sort of like's to play all the instruments himself. Let's get together and play live and see how it works. And he said Anything you want to play?' Well how bout some old Dinosaur stuff that you haven't really played in a really long time? And to keep you fans sort of amped about the tour and thinking about things again. So we did. We played a lot of stuff off the first record. The second record. We were playing "Sludge Feast" and "the Lung" and "Freak Scene." We even played, Lou came to one of the shows, Lou Barlow, It was historic because those two haven't spoken in like 12 years.
We played "Little Furry Things." I'm like, How did I do Lou? He goes,' Well I don't know because we never played that song live. We only recorded it.' He goes sounded great to me.'
JPG: That’s cool.
DS: It was really cool. It was comedy on wheels because the drummer guy, Kyle Spence. Plays in a local band from Athens called the Tom Collins. J says It's the only drummer he ever played with whose better than he is.' Magnificent drummer. That's probably one of the reasons why he ends up playing everything in the studio because he can't, he's never been afforded musicians who can take his ideas and put em a little farther.
We had a great time and the soundman was our friend Kevin Sweeney, who plays in this band called Sunshine Fix and also in my little band, Acetate. So it was like J. Mascis and the southern Fog (slight laugh). So it was us in a van going from Seattle to San Diego and it was comedy. It was pure comedy the whole time. It was hilarious.
JPG: Speaking of SST, a friend told me that nothing’s coming out anymore, so if you find any SST stuff, you should probably pick it up.
DS: Well the Old SST Dinosaur records, they're coming out next month on Merge.
JPG: Really, I see.
DS: I believe, remastered and everything. There's a need for that. It's one of the other things that I thought about with all this hooopla about Cobain's 10th death anniversary, I started thinking about who are the big voices of that generation in music? Of course, there's Eddie Vedder, who never went away. Then you have Stephen Malkmus in Pavement. His voice has kind of receded into the shadows with the Jicks (name of Malkmus's backing band).
But when you hear J's voice, he's got that same quality that Cobain had, but not as tortured, but just as, sort of apathetic. To me when I hear J sing a song, it really takes me back to that era. That sort of Gen X. I hate labels. They're pretty useful identifying certain times. That just don't care, don't have the energy to deal with anyone or anything kind of feel. I think that that. Generation, they're hitting 30 maybe they have kids. They're sunk in their cubicle jobs. I think that they need to hear that voice again.
JPG: Yeah, speaking of such things, it’s really unfortunate, I don’t know if you heard about this, speaking of something from that Generation X if you will, the Lollapalooza tour got cancelled this year.
DS: I did hear about that. I mean, it seems like all the tours are tanking this summer. I've heard that the Dead tour's not selling anywhere near what they thought it would sell. And the Phish tour, although of course it's selling out, it's not selling out as fast as usual. All this stuff. I blame Clear Channel. I blame the prices, the market, who knows what's going on. It sure seems hard if you were a college kid to get turned on to good music and to be able to afford to go see a good show. That's a real shame to me.
JPG: I don’t know how one can afford to see more than a couple shows here and there…if you’re working or due to cost…
DS: That's one thing that Panic tries to do and I know that we tried to do it this summer with Stockholm, keep the prices low so that people who are, that they love the band, that they actually can come out and have a good time. Make up their minds right there.
JPG: You guys are playing the All Good Festival I think in like a week or two, which is a nice line-up and I think a nice place to be as well.
DS: Yeah, I think the festival if they can afford to get the talent and keep the ticket price down at the same time to a kid, that sounds like a real winning option. But I know as to a promoter, boy what a fine line. Try and get that sort of seductive lineup happening and the talent required to pull people in, also keep the ticket prices affordable. It would be tough. I'm glad I'm just a bass player.
JPG: I’d like to move back to something you mentioned earlier. When we were talking about the lyrics and Jerry coming up with so much, I think you mentioned something about the direction of what you wanted. Elaborate about that because the review I read in last month’s Jambands focused on the social and political aspects of the lyrics. Some of it, even with the band name, reading what it’s about, just seem prophetic.
DS: Oh man, the lyrics to "Bouncing Very Well" were written 6 or 8 months ago. It meant one thing to Jerry when he wrote it. It was a metaphor for a relationship that's souring between a lover. Then the next thing you know, these torture photos hit the newscasts and all of a sudden the song takes on a different meaning. It's about to come out in 3 days and this stuff is right in the forefront of the national media. That's sort of an interesting occurrence really that the writer can write one set of words that mean something to him specifically and something can happen in the national arena, or the international arena that totally is going to make anyone think we might as well written that song during the week of all the prison torture. Because that's what it shows that girl with the naked guy on the leash.
To me that's just some kind of weird bonus I guess. Songwriters try to write allegorically so that the listener can take pretty much anything he wants home with him from the words, but that's a pretty specific reference there. And for something to occur that sort of hammers out a more specific meaning is weird. Believe me, we certainly noticed it.
We were over in Europe when that was all coming to the forefront and we're doing that song every night. Good lord. We were together on the morning of 9/11. We were mixing the Conscious Contact record. Jerry was staying with me at my house here in Athens. I wake up and yelling upstairs at me. How do you turn on the TV? It's fuckin' nine in the morning, why do you want the tv on? He's like, they're flying jets into the world trade center.' We sat here and watched this terrible thing unfold and we knew that world was never going to be the same.
We wanted to write something to make people think. I'm never one for telling people what to think. I like to just make em think a little bit. Jerry on the other hand, he loves to shout his opinion to the mountain top. If there was going to be a sticking point, possibly, between the two of us, that would be it. It just seems like people need to think about what s going on. I would never tell anyone what to do or how to think, but I think that people need to think about all these things.
The song "American Fork" we wrote. The lyrics in it are really heavy like this laundry list of bullshit that's going on in the country and when we were at Compass Point recording it just happened to be the day to work on the vocals for that. We had been thinking about toning it down and making it a little less specific. We took a break and it happened to be the state of the union address and I was in the mixing room with Terry working on something else. Jerry sat in the tv lounge and watched the State of the Union and he came stomping in and said "you know I just watched the State of the Union Address and I'm not changing a Goddamn thing about those lyrics.' He was mad. Even our staunch Republican Manager was mad.
Some of the things that were suggested are just frightening to the people that love freedom and understand the freedom we have here, it's a big responsibility. There's a lot of that stuff and I'm sure we're going to take a lot of heat for some of these words, but people need to think. If it generates some heat, that's okay with me because maybe the heat will make em think a little bit. That's really all I'm trying to do. Suggest that perhaps things aren't as they seem when presented by the media. Maybe to handle your responsibility to keep your freedom, you're going to need to do a little extra research this fall when you go in there and pull that lever whichever one it may be.
JPG: Are you taking it if you will a little bit further. I know that a lot of bands on the jamband scene are bringing HeadCount to at least do voter registration and try to get people not to just kick back too much in life, but to enter reality just a wee bit more.
DS: I think that Al from moe. called me about HeadCount about 7 months ago. It was concerning Widespread and Stockholm. I said Widespread, one of our main points is to never to take a stand as a band. But I think that it was sort of a moot because we're off for the year. But in as Stockholm goes, I was sort of under the wrong impression that HeadCount was a left count liberal pro Democrat thing, but once I discovered that it's just all about getting people to register to vote so their voice can be heard. I think it's a good thing.
It's something we're doing, trying to do in our night club here in Athens called the Caledonia Lounge. A little punk rock club. It's the same idea. One of the guys who works at the club, He's like, 'Well here's a neat idea. Why can't we pass out the registration forms?' There's nothing to it. You just make em available and talk to people about it. Just have forms available and we'll even take responsibility to take them back over to the federal building here in Athens once they've been filled out. So we're trying to institute that.
People they just need to, they need to vote. They need to make their voice heard especially if they want to try and change something. They've got to say something. Otherwise the government just does what it wants. They'll take care of it for you. So if you're unhappy with the way it's being taken care of then you need to let them know.
I think that HeadCount's a great thing. I think that they will be represented on the Stockholm tour. I'm pretty sure they will and they certainly welcome to be there as long as they're not telling people who to vote for they're all okay in my book. Frankly it's up to you if you want to vote for the empire and if you're prepared to deal with the results of being a global empire then by all means vote for him. If you want to try and change things from the way they've been in the last couple of years, then you have to vote for that as well. It's really from my point of view, make your voice heard. But educate yourself before you start screaming into the wind.
JPG: Two quickies left. First off, the song "Couldn’t Get it Right," when I caught that being played, I was like is that what I think it is? All of a sudden, I was like wow, didn’t think, that song had a bit of a groove, but I was like you guys found it and took off with it. How did you guys end up picking that and why?
DS: Well when we were talking about projects, it was suggested from on high that perhaps we try to find an old single that was pretty popular back whenever. This is historically proven to be a good way to help break a band.
So we had some ideas and I won't tell you what they were because we may choose to play them later (slight laugh) Won't want to wreck the surprise.
That was one that Jerry came up with. We were sitting down in the studio talking about this. We had some other ideas and we couldn't even remember who did it. I think it was Terry who finally recalled who did it. His son Lucas was our internet research assistant of the project. He went out there on livewire and found it and we listened to it like yeah this is great. Jerry has his own reasons for it, but it had to do with when he was a teenager in New Zealand. He remembered it from those days and it meant a lot to him in several personal ways. It fit the bill completely. It is that song where upon hearing it you go, I haven't heard that song in a very long time. I love that song. I always thought it was the Bee Gees that did it because of the high harmony vocals. But, no it's Climax Blues Band.
JPG: Yeah I remember that as a kid. Sounds like something you’d hear in a Quintin Tarantino movie. And I guess the last thing is, Widespread Panic is taking 2004 off. Since that time Leftover Salmon and Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have announced they’re taking a hiatus. Phish is breaking up. What did you start?
DS: Phish is really the first one to take a prescriptive hiatus. Panic had been trying to do that for the last five years. You get to where we got as a jamband and I'm sure that if you spoke to Trey or Page or any of those guys they would say exactly the same thing. You work so hard for so long before you even become a noticeable entity. Ten years of touring together in a van, playing 200 shows a year everywhere you can, and then all of a sudden the rest of the world discovers you and you're playing theaters and arenas and selling 'em out. Suddenly you realize you're being credited for helping to create this genre of music but you've just arrived to anyone else and you're kind of tired.
It's exhausting work and certainly very fulfilling work. We've been trying to do it, just take some time off and let everybody have their lives back, folks who have wives or kids of just want to work on the garden. It's a good thing. This kind of creativity takes passion and when you're physically and mentally exhausted your passion is gone because it's hard to find it. You don't' have the strength. Improvisational music without passion is pointless.
Like I said, we had been trying to find the time to do it but something would always come up, whether it was Mikey getting sick or us making the decision that we were going to re-establish ourselves with our new guitar player, George McConnell, delayed our time off by three years. And so, we were certainly ready for it.
I think that these other bands are in the same boat. What they like to do is go out there and create a symbiosis with the audience and build this fire and the fuel, it gets harder and harder to come by. Without that passion it's not really there.
And it's good to get involved with different projects. I know my stint with Gov't Mule allowed me to work from a different angle as a bass player when I come back to Panic. And so all these other things I'm doing and JoJo would tell you this from his work with the Smiling Assassins, Todd would tell you this with his work with Barbara Cue, that it's really good, helps stoke the fires of passion and creativity.
So, I'm really happy. I'm filling my time with things I'm choosing to do whether it's throwing tennis balls for my dog or go out on tour with J. Mascis or being lucky enough to produce a record with Terry Manning at my left hand engineering these great sounds, and working with players like Eric McFadden, Wally Ingram and Danny Dziuk. I worship their talent and everything about them. They're great people.